Game developer of many hats. MFA Thesis student. Part-time vocal synthesis guru.

Thesis Blog

Warning: not all blogging is directly related to thesis, although most of it is.


Like empathy, stigma is a pretty big word for my thesis, and understanding it is quite crucial to understanding both my methods and my madness. So, what is stigma, anyway, and why should we care about it?

Stigma is a set of attitudes and beliefs which cause people to reject, avoid, and fear those they perceive as being different from themself. It can take a number of forms, depending upon what identity is being stigmatized, but it is generally comprised of three parts: stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination. The ill-understood out-group is stereotyped into certain categories, prejudice arises as a result of believing in negative stereotypes without a true understanding of the out-group, and discrimination comes as a behavioral response to that prejudice; these three things are thus closely tied.

Stigma takes place in two places, so to say: within society at large, and within the stigmatized person themself. Social stigma causes unpleasant responses from the other people in a stigmatized person’s life, whether simply ignorant our outright derogatory. Self-stigma, the internalized stigma adopted from viewing one’s social landscape (and media, as well), is tremendously impactful in the case of mental illness, as it plays a marked role in precluding treatment and otherwise impairing the quality of life of the stigmatized person.

In the case of stigma against the mentally ill, there are three stereotypes suggested by analysis. These are, as paraphrased:

  1. Fear that people with severe mental illness are violent and unpredictable; this can often be seen in media as the “homicidal maniac”, and I refer to this as the stigma of “insanity”. Psychotic illnesses are susceptible to this form of stigma, as people with psychotic illnesses may behave in ways that neurotypical people see as erratic and unpredictable (and thus naturally frightening). This stigma has been perpetuated enormously in media, especially crime dramas and horror, which furthers its destructive impact.

  2. Belief that people with severe mental illness can be likened to children and must be cared for by others; this can, especially in media, also turn into a sort of mysticism, that people with mental illness have some sort of marvelous and unique perspective. This stigma is often applied to autism spectrum disorders, as people on the autism spectrum have different thought patterns and frequently do not understand things which neurotypical people consider to be “common understanding”.

  3. Belief that people suffer from severe mental illness due to flaws in their character and that they should be able to control its symptoms, essentially denying that there is any underlying illness to begin with. Mood disorders are likely to incur this type of stigma, as people with mood disorders are unable to simply “control” their mood and take the same normal steps to change it as neurotypical people can. This stigma is rather silent in nature as people suffering it may not even realize they are being stigmatized.

Naturally, I can only choose one of these types of stigma to focus on; trying to tackle all three would be quite a large task indeed. I will analyze each of these forms of stigma to some extent in my research and written paper, but I have chosen to focus on the third form of stigma shown here, which I refer to as the “invisible illness”, as it is the one I understand the best on a personal level. Time permitting, I may touch upon the other types slightly in my project, but I will be focusing on the last one primarily and using it to influence my design.

I must justify, however, why a game can help with stigma, if I am to suggest using games as a tool to assist with reducing stigma. There are three general approaches to breaking down stigma: protest, education, and contact. Of these, education and contact are proactive strategies and thus of interest to my design. Games have long been known to work as an educational tool, but I suggest that they can also act as a vehicle for synthetic “contact” between the people playing the game, and the synthetic people with mental illness who exist inside of the game. By engaging in the player’s emotions and utilizing and empathetic approach, I can ideally both inform them about mental illness (ie, educate them) and also create a more lasting emotional impact through this “virtual contact”. This sort of empathetic education is still a green area of research, but I find it interesting and believe in its strengths even so.

Whew, this whole entry is awfully academic and wordy. My next entry should be something a little more fun—so about game design, rather than about the theoretical side of things. For now, I think re-hashing all of this might have melted my brain a little, but I’m glad I did it, because now I’m that much closer to getting back into my project in earnest.